A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련, Kim Jee-woon: 2003)

Sisters Su-mi and Su-yeon arrive home after time away for treatment of an illness. The girls have a very close and happy relationship with each other but are united in their dislike of their stepmother, a problem that their father seems content to ignore. Enjoying the comfort of a big old house, the peace and quiet is soon disrupted by some very strange occurrences…

Recently remade in the U.S. as The Univited – a film which seemed to slip under the radar of most people, it certainly did for me – A Tale of Two Sisters isn’t typical Hollywood fodder (although I can see the reason for the interest in a remake) as it’s the type of film that is totally reliant on a very skilled director like Kim Jee-woon to successfully deliver. Merging horror and drama – and treating each with a gentle touch rather than succumbing to the temptation to be more aggressive – A Tale of Two Sisters is a delicate balancing act of stunning visuals, impressive performances and intelligent writing. Slow paced in the best way possible, it’s a film that unwinds carefully and on the surface has only a few typical ‘horror’ moments. The type of film that requires concentration throughout, A Tale of Two Sisters stays in the mind for a long time after viewing.

A Tale of Two Sisters gently sidles up to you before getting under your skin

Following two very successful comedies – The Quiet Family and The Foul King –  stylish director Kim Jee-woon made a complete change of direction with A Tale of Two Sisters, one that at the time appeared quite unexpected given the directors ‘comedy’ credentials. With atmosphere at the forefront there’s nothing much in the film that will have you closing your eyes in disgust, or screaming at the characters to ‘run away’. Instead, A Tale of Two Sisters gently sidles up to you before getting under your skin. I found it creepiest when the film had actually ended, and I was thinking about it. Sound daft? The reason for this is that you need to watch the film all of the way through to make any sense of it all. There’s a moment in A Tale of Two Sisters – about two thirds of the way through – when something happens that makes you go ‘what?’ It’s from this point that the film begins to seem to start making sense, yet at the same time other parts get more confusing. You’ll have to see it to see what I mean, but it is because the story is dependent on the films actual structure itself. There’s a couple of references in A Tale of Two Sisters to other horror films released at the same time such as Ring and Audition – although this is a film with much more restraint and lacks the graphic delight / horror of Audition, and without the rigid ‘count-down’ structure of Ring. The story’s structure in A Tale of Two Sisters is the main key to understanding it. The film is actually loosely based on a Korean folk-tale, and has been previously filmed in various versions at least five times before. This was not a story that I was familiar with and so I can’t compare this with any of the other versions, but to me the story seemed fresh and continually interesting.

The performances throughout A Tale of Two Sisters are excellent from the whole cast. The two girls, played by Im Soo-jung and Moon Geun-young, hold the film with ease and manage to make sure that you can’t tell if you’re supposed to sympathise with them or if there’s something more sinister underneath. Yeom Jung-ah as the step-mother also gives a strong performance in a difficult role, and with A Tale of Two Sisters she marked herself out as an actress to keep an eye out for in the future.

Ultimately A Tale of Two Sisters is a gothic horror film and being so the backgrounds and surroundings in the film (largely the house) take on a character of their own. There’s lots of long tracking shots which really give you the sense of the space, but also make you worry about what may be around the corner. It’s beautifully shot and every scene seems to have been carefully planned with an artist’s eye, and A Tale of Two Sisters is still the most striking Korean film that I have seen visually yet.

It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but A Tale of Two Sisters will stick in your mind. I have been intentionally vague about the way the plot develops here, but this is because it would be easy to give away the story to a film which impresses with its subtleties and originality. If you do like A Tale of Two Sisters (you probably will!), you’re likely to want to see it again to work out its hidden layers.

장화, 홍련 (A Tale of Two Sisters)
Directed by Kim Jee-woon
Produced by Oh Jeong-wan, Oh Ki-min
Written by Kim Jee-woon
Starring Im Soo-jung, Moon Geun-young, Yeom Jung-ah, Kim Kap-soo

A Tale of Two Sisters Image © B.O.M. Film Productions Co.